Expert Opinion

Governance and Poppies

Professor Simon Robinson, Director of the Research Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility at Leeds Beckett, shares his thoughts following the recent FIFA poppy saga.

In the post truth era we have FIFA, the Centre of so many storms about governance, asserting what they deem to be strong governance, and fining the Welsh, English, Scottish and Northern Irish FAs for allowing players to wear poppies in November games.

Might there be any grounds for doing this? It is clearly there in the FIFA rules that "The display, among others, of any political or religious symbol is strictly prohibited."

So the first question is, is that a reasonable rule. There are at least two good grounds for it. First, religion and politics are messy. Statements and symbols can lead to conflict. The basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was repeatedly suspended by the NBA for failing to stand for the national anthem. His interpretation of Islam as “the only way” led to conflict between religion and patriotism. There are enough problems around religion and sport (from religious dress to practice) without setting up even bigger ones.

Second, political power can easily be used to dominate a sporting event. The worst example of this was the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. This was based in at least two levels of civic religion. There were huge rituals and events, including use of ancient myths, which focused on building the volk, complete with modern martyrs (Burleigh 2000). These then linked into the Olympic rituals, which were in turn developed by Goebbels (Large 2007). He was the first to develop the relay of the Olympic flame, aiming to focus on uniting different areas of Germany. Behind this was a belief system that precisely denied the presence or value of the other, working directly against de Coubertin’s vision of the Olympics as a means of peace-building (Large 2007).

So the context of the rule seems secure. But how can wearing poppies fit that? That all depends on what wearing poppies signifies, and of course, historically there have been disputes about this. Is it about patriotism? Thanksgiving for winning. Does it have a more pastoral focus? Something about cherishing the memory of those who died. Or is it about peace and the futility of war? In which case it would not be a partial perspective but about all who died in war.

FIFA have deemed the action to be political, which I guess falls into the first of the three meanings around poppies…albeit a bit of a squeeze. And then they noted with something of a stern glance that they had to fine the FAs because rules must apply to all and in all situations. So here comes the final question; is this good governance?

The answer is, only if you think governance is simply about the equitable application of rules. Governance is primarily about steering an organization in the right direction. And there will always be questions about what is right (not just in a narrow ethical sense). So important rules (which provide needed parameters) cannot be ‘applied’ without dialogue. And dialogue might help FIFA and the FAs to articulate more clearly the meaning of Remembrance. Remembrance is not simply about honouring our war dead, which could be seen as partial. It is also about remembering the values which were fought for, such as freedom and equality (RH Tawney), - values which are universal, impartial. It is also about learning the lessons of war and the importance of constant attention to peace-building. Remembrance can feed directly into the vision of sport as contributing to peace.

Those who govern have a choice. They can govern by rules, with one eye over their corporate shoulder, fearful of what others might say if rules are not followed (and we can all understand why FIFA worry about that). Or they can govern by wisdom, with the courage and imagination to be open to dialogue, which locates the core value and purpose of any project, without which rules make little sense.

  • Burleigh, M. (2000) The Third Reich (London: McMillan).
  • Large, D. (2007), Nazi Games (New York: W.W. Norton

More from the blog

By Dr Henry Irving
27 Sep 2018
All blogs